This Week's Reads

Garth Stein and Jon Ronson.

How Evan Broke His Head and Other Secrets

By Garth Stein (SoHo, $25) Little more than halfway into Seattle author Garth Stein's second novel, there's a passage that makes the whole book suddenly spring to life. It's a short scene, only seven pages long, and it's straightforward—a heated phone conversation between Evan, the main character, and the brother of Tracy, his now- deceased high-school girlfriend. But in those utterly entrancing seven pages, Stein condenses the emotional and narrative energy that has been diluted in the rest of his novel. They leave you with a taste of brilliance that makes the whole of Evan seem more colorless than it is. If only he could have held that note longer. The novel opens with 31-year-old Evan in Eastern Washington for Tracy's funeral, where he meets Dean, his 14-year-old son with Tracy, for the first time. The two don't hit it off immediately, but once Evan takes Dean back to Seattle with him, they have to learn to deal with each other. Further complicating things are Evan's overbearing parents, all too eager to dispense unwanted advice; his band, which is on the cusp of indie success; and a too-good-to-be-true new girlfriend. Oh, and he has epilepsy. Stein handles the many narrative elements deftly, with only the occasional clunky, overly portentous line to slow him down ("Time is the longest distance between two places"). At root, the novel is about Evan's personal growth, and the development of his relationship with Dean is believably complex, full of stops and starts and inexplicable moments of tenderness. Sure, with so many story threads to manage, it feels a touch contrived that nearly every one is tied up in the end. But by that point, Stein has already proved that he's capable of both disappointing and astonishing the reader. PATRICK ENRIGHT Garth Stein will appear at Elliott Bay Book Co., 8 p.m. Fri., May 27. The Men Who Stare at Goats

By Jon Ronson (Simon & Schuster, $24) As a writer, Jon Ronson is a kind of freakish superbeing who tells drolly observed, gently ironic stories as well as David Sedaris, Sarah Vowell, or any of the other regulars on This American Life (to which he also contributes). But he is also a kick-ass, trailblazing investigative reporter, who for his last book, 2002's Them: Adventures With Extremists, won the trust of the grand wizard of the KKK, Islamic militant Omar Bakri, and Ruby Ridge survivor Rachel Weaver. This time around, he has uncovered some jaw-droppingly weird characters associated with the U.S. military and intelligence services, including a platoon of psychic spies (no, really), active as late as 1995, who sought to induce goat heart attacks with their minds. At the center of the story is Lt. Col. Jim Channon and his First Earth Battalion Operations Manual, a classified plan for military reform written in the depths of the post-Vietnam funk and inspired by New Age gurus and paranormal teachings. Not all of the manual's ideas were implemented—for instance, Channon wanted troops to chant "Om" instead of things like "I don't know but I've been told, Eskimo pussy is mighty cold"—but Ronson has chronicled just how surreptitiously influential the manual has been. Channon's recruiting slogan, "Be All That You Can Be," was just the beginning. Goats is a sprawling tale that takes in the Branch Davidian siege (where Channon's ideas on subliminal suggestions were implemented somewhat, um, unsuccessfully), late-night DJ Art Bell, and the 1987 Hale-Bopp comet. Oh, and Panamanian dictator Gen. Manuel Noriega, seen here casting voodoo spells on a U.S. Army general, who is in turn trying to spy on him via astral projection (no, really). The author's patented balance of unsettling and funny tilts decidedly toward the side of unsettling as his story moves into our current military era. He makes a convincing case that some of the methods employed at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay are twisted versions of ideas originally found in the First Earth manual. Ronson's authorial superpowers lead him astray in some ways. He is such a master at seeking out freaky people and artfully letting them speak for themselves that he offers almost no overt commentary—even when the material cries out for it (e.g., I would love to know what exactly he thinks about Channon). But what makes Goats essential reading is that, like Jon Stewart, Jon Ronson can make us laugh in that grateful way where we feel in the moment of our laughter that some measure of perspective and sanity has been restored to the world. DAVID STOESZ

 
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